SAN DIEGO — U.S. immigration officials Monday announced new steps to curb a rising death toll among illegal immigrants entering the United States from Mexico. The move came only two days after another victim succumbed to desert heat in California.
Under the stepped-up effort, U.S. Border Patrol agents will get improved safety training in skills such as river rescues, and for the first time they will be taught jointly with Mexican border police. The Border Patrol also will offer agents refresher courses in first aid and air new television spots near the border warning would-be immigrants of the perils of rural crossings.
The steps, part of a 2-year-old safety initiative, were announced by U.S. Immigration and Naturalization officials in Washington, D.C. The program came in response to scores of deaths along back-country smuggling routes increasingly used to skirt a U.S. border crackdown in places such as San Diego. In the last three years, more than 700 immigrants, often led by smugglers, have drowned in rivers and irrigation canals, frozen in mountain cold or died in desert heat.
Officials said agents have rescued more than 2,000 migrants from life-threatening situations since the safety program began.
"Intensifying our focus on public safety is critical, especially as we move into the summer months when the dangers associated with illegal crossings rise with the temperature," U.S. Border Patrol Chief Gustavo De La Vina said in a statement.
The training issue took center stage this month when two migrants drowned in the Rio Grande near Brownsville, Texas, in view of U.S. and Mexican border agents on shore. The drowning was taped by a Mexican news crew and aired repeatedly. Mexican officials said their agents did not know how to swim. Border Patrol officials said the U.S. agents tossed a lifesaving disc and rope, but to no avail.
Mexico has decried the deaths, and critics of the border policy say Operation Gatekeeper and other U.S. initiatives funnel migrants into risky rural routes. Advocacy groups in the United States have charged that the crackdown violates international human rights standards.
Improved training is worthwhile "if it saves one life," said migrant rights advocate Claudia Smith. "But it's not the answer. The deaths will keep multiplying as long as we pursue a strategy of putting migrants in harm's way."
Since October, 213 people have died along the 2,000-mile border, according to INS statistics. At that rate the number of deaths for the year will exceed the number for 1999, during which 231 perished, and for 1998, when 261 migrants died. In California, 72 have died since October, according to the Border Patrol.
Unusually hot weather in the desert this year has taken a toll. In a case that got wide attention in Mexico, a 19-year-old woman died of dehydration in Arizona last month after giving all her water to her 18-month-old daughter. The child survived. Since October, at least 68 people have died crossing into Arizona, now the nation's busiest spot for illegal entries.
In California, Border Patrol officials said a man thought to be from Mexico died Saturday in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in eastern San Diego County. Two companions, suffering from dehydration, were taken to an El Centro hospital.
In a separate incident, a special Border Patrol desert rescue team found 16 men and eight women wandering in the Imperial County desert this weekend without food or water. They had abandoned a vehicle that was stuck in the sand.
"They just started walking into the worst part of the desert," said Manual Figueroa, Border Patrol spokesman in El Centro. "They were walking toward their death, really, if these guys didn't find them."
Border Patrol officials worry that the severe heat worsens danger at a time when more migrants are crossing. Temperatures in Imperial County have topped 100 degrees nearly every day for more than a month, and average temperatures are about 5 degrees warmer than normal, according to WeatherData Inc., which provides forecasts for The Times.
Imperial County also has seen a doubling in the number of people drowned--to 28--in irrigation channels along the border since October. Deaths in Imperial County stand at 50, compared to 39 for the same period in 1999. Twenty-two have died entering San Diego County since October, the Border Patrol said.